Kennedy Space Center

Would you like to know how to completely undermine the benefits of a relaxing Caribbean cruise and transform quality family time into snarling conflict?  Then do read on.

By mid-morning we had disembarked in Miami and bid farewell to my in-laws (who were travelling on to Mexico to visit family).  We had a whole two days of driving ahead of us with an overnight stay in Savannah.  With a bit of time to play with on the first day of travel, we had the option of either exploring Savannah (which I have not visited since 1998) or stopping off somewhere in Florida.  As you will no doubt guess, I was rooting for Savannah.  However, acknowledging it was going to be dark and everyone tired by the time we got there, I let Mr Pict have his choice: the Kennedy Space Center.

Mr Pict loves outer space stuff – he was an avid amatueur astronomer for a while – but it doesn’t do much for me.  Physics and engineering generally don’t do much for me.  However, I drag him around art galleries and cemeteries so it’s all about give and take.  Convincing the kids that we should support Dad in having his day was a whole other thing though.  Maybe it was a week of over-indulgence and burning the candle at both ends or of too much freedom.  Maybe they were all just crabbit and at peak t(w)een griping.  Whatever the cause of their resistance, they just were not having it.  With the exception of the youngest, they made it clear they were begrudging every single minute of the time spent there.  We have made this mistake before, pushing for just one more activity or experience on a vacation and then regretting it.  We should have known better.

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Having a sense of which way the wind was blowing, I advised Mr Pict to prioritise what things he really wanted to see.  We, therefore, decided to start with the tour of actual NASA buildings and lined up for the bus.  When I was last at the Space Center, almost exactly 20 years earlier, it essentially comprised just this tour, an IMAX theatre and some rockets.  Now the Visitor Complex is so vast that the tour seems almost tacked on as a sideshow.  The queue for the bus was constantly moving but it took ages for us to get to the head of the line.  The bus tour took us past the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, the scale of which can only really be appreciated by seeing it in real life, but what I was most excited about was seeing a large alligator in the road’s meridian.  We were deposited within a building that contained a launch command centre complete with a reenactment of the Apollo 8 launch.  There was then a large exhibition hall containing various vehicles, including a lunar rover, a Saturn V rocket, some kind of landing module, and spacesuits.

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Upon returning the visitor complex, Mr Pict decided that we should next go into the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit.  Our oldest son utilised the fact he was still feeling unwell to opt out so we found him a shady waiting area while they rest of us went in.  The line was extremely long and very tedious.  We were standing in line for 45 minutes just to enter a room where we had to stand and watch an audio-visual presentation before being herded into another room in which we had to stand and walk.  This room at least contained an actual Atlantis Shuttle.  We then discovered that the line for the Atlantis experience was going to be another 40 minutes with the experience itself lasting half an hour.  Honestly, I was done standing and queuing but I also did not want to leave my oldest son alone any longer – plus I get queasy in simulators – so I declared I was just going to head for the exit.  That was the cue for the other three boys to declare they were over it too.  Even Mr Pict had to admit that the thought of joining yet another queue just for this one ruddy experience was a despairing one.  He quit too.

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Back in the sunshine, we had a look around and every exhibition area was in the same situation with crazily long lines and ridiculous wait times.  The kids were very moody by this point.  Making our next move wa s like handling a basket of cobras.  Additionally, we knew we still had a few hours in the car before reaching Savannah and rest ahead of us.  It was time to quit while we were less behind.  The Space Center feels like it has expanded to be a Disney or Universal style attraction but without the mechanics to handle the crowd dynamics or to at least keep people entertained and motivated while they stand in lengthy lines.  It was a bum note to end on after our cruise vacation.  Emotional eating is not healthy but sometimes good food is the cure.  Therefore, we found a barbecue joint in Titusville for our dinner pit stop.  Happily some delicious food helped raise everyone’s spirits.

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Caribbean Cruise – Miami

We Picts closed out 2018 on a bang as we spent the festive period on vacation.  My in-laws had generously gifted us a Caribbean Cruise for Christmas so the eight of us celebrated the season on the high seas, spending a week exploring new places and cultures (for the kids and me at least), and experiencing a cruise for the first time in the case of our youngest two children and me.

Of course, before we could board the ship and sail off in the lap of luxury, we had to get to Miami.  We, therefore, spent two days driving south from the Philly suburbs to Miami.  That’s a whole lot of the I95, a useful but incredibly boring road that sometimes feels as if it is never going to earn.  We spent the first night on the outskirts of Savannah and arrived in Miami the following evening.  We had hoped for a bit more time in Miami but holiday traffic had other plans for us.  Nevertheless, we were able to meet up with my in-laws (who had flown over from the UK) in time to have a delicious dinner.

However, as early risers, the next morning we had enough time to explore Miami Beach.  As frequent readers of this blog will be well aware, I am not a fan of sand.  The only good sand is glass as far as I am concerned.  However, Mr Pict and the Pictlings love the beach so I suck it up, brace myself, and just deal with my discomfort.  The kids found a shiny but decidedly dead fish and our youngest son found a teenie-weenie coconut.  While they enjoyed the beach and the warm sea air, what I liked about the beach area was all the 1930s architecture of Ocean Drive and its environs.  I love Art Deco for its elegant use of geometric shapes and clean lines and pops of colour.  There were also some sleek buildings in the moderne style and some that seemed to have a hispanic influence.

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As luck should have it, we happened to be standing on Ocean Drive when the local fire brigade drove past in a formation.  While the emergency lights were flashing, there were no sirens.  That is because this was no emergency.  Instead, it was their Christmas parade.  The fire engines were being driven by Santa and elves while the Grinch and a gingerbread man appeared as passengers.  There were children on board too so we waved enthusiastically at them as they passed by.

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We left Miami beach and headed to the port area to ready ourselves for embarking onto the cruise ship.  I admit that I found the whole process quite stressful.  As someone used to either travelling entirely under my own steam when road tripping or experiencing the relatively controlled routines of flying, the process for boarding the ship felt quite stressful.  My anxiety hit peak when we had to leave our luggage with a porter which pretty much left it unattended among hordes of people.  Having travelled around London for decades and then having flown in the post-9/11 world, the whole idea of “unattended luggage” is anathema to me.  Add to that the fact that I experienced having possessions stolen from my luggage 20 years ago and I was deeply unsettled by the whole thing.  Then there were milling crowds.  I am British and, therefore, culturally hard-wired to strongly prefer orderly queuing.  The random hustle and bustle unsettled me further.  It all just felt a bit chaotic and haphazard.  Even when we boarded, because our rooms were not going to be available for a few hours more, it was a case of everyone scuttling to find a space in which to settle down.  In the grand scheme of things, these are all small beer quibbles but I cannot deny that those were an intense few hours for me, neurotic control freak that I am.

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We wandered the ship to start getting our bearings and finally had access to our rooms in early afternoon.  Then we were finally off.  We bid farewell to Miami and I headed off on my very first cruise.

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New Year’s Eve at Legoland Florida

Hogmany (New Year’s Eve for non-Scots) was our day for Legoland.  The kids had been to Legoland in England twice and completely loved it so their grandparents had gifted them tickets to Legoland for Christmas.  We were all pretty much theme-parked out by that point so were hoping for a day of smaller crowds and shorter queues.

Part of the joy of Legoland is just the fact that anything and everything has been Lego-fied.  Since three of the kids and I are all massive lego fans, it adds to the fun.  There were Lego Christmas decorations ornamenting the park including full-size snowmen, Santa with his sleigh and reindeer and an incredibly tall Christmas tree made out of lego and adorned with lego baubles and candy canes.

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First stop was a double decker carousel containing galloping lego horses.  The horses were designed to be just like the ones the kids have from their lego ‘Lord of the Rings’ sets which was cool.  Then there was more lego animal action as we boarded cars to go on a lego safari past such brick-built beasties as lions, hippos, elephants and meerkats.  The ride was simple but the pleasure came from seeing the thought and effort that had been invested in creating the detailed, full-size models.

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Next up was the Lost Kingdom Adventure, which seems to be inspired by old-timey adventure serials.  Set in an Egyptian pyramid, wagons carried us through darkened rooms filled with treasures and money and baddy treasure seekers as we used laser guns to shoot at various targets.  Sticking with the Egyptian theme, the adjacent ride was called Beetle Bounce – inspired by scarab beetles – which involved being strapped into a bench that was lifted higher and higher and then being gradually bounced back down again.  Mr Pict and all of the boys wanted to go on it but no sooner was he seated and buckled in than our 7 year old started to whimper and wail.  It was another case of him wanting to push himself into doing something he was actually not comfortable with.  Despite it being a fairly straightforward and gentle ride – which everyone else enjoyed – he screamed and cried his way through it.  My hope is that after all of these theme park ride experiences, he will realise that he just does not actually enjoy rides involving height or speed – just like his mother.

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We then headed to the Medieval area where there were more lego horses, this time for jousting.  The 7 year old, who is daft about horses, and our youngest both queued up so they could have a turn riding on the horses.  They looped around a track past various targets and were all smiles all the way around.  Once again it was simple but effective.

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The dinosaur area was where those who wanted to do something more adventurous could experience some thrills.  There was a wooden roller coaster, which perhaps made it look a bit rickety and ropey, named the Coastersaurus.  Mr Pict, his father and our oldest son went on it while the rest of us nibbled at our packed lunches.  As rollercoasters go, it was a manageable one for all concerned.  It had one steep ascent followed by a sudden descent and some speedy undulations.

The Lego Theatre was showing a 4D show called ‘Spellbreaker’.  It looked vintage with very basic animation and soundtracking but the characters were appealing, the story was sweet and the 3D moments were really good.  That’s the thing about Legoland: its simplicity, just making everything fun and toy-like, is where its charm lies.  It doesn’t need to be loud, brash and frenetic to be appealing.After the film show, it was time for a live action show.  Legoland had taken over the site of an older park named Cypress Gardens.  Mr Pict and his parents remembered visiting the botanical gardens and viewing water skiing performances from an auditorium.  It turned out that Legoland had taken that model and just adapted it to their theme.  We were ushered into and seated at the same auditorium, overlooking a stretch of water.  The theme was pirates so we watched as a group of good guys, led by a stunt water skiing woman and supported by a group of lego soldiers, went into combat with a group of pirates who also performed stunts on their water skis and speedboats.  The villain of the piece was a peg-legged pirate named Brickbeard who was dressed up as a minifigure.  The quality of the show was impressive and the rate of stunts had us applauding almost constantly.  The kids loved all the jumps and leaps and the minifigure characters.  Afterwards, the little ones were stoked to be able to meet one of the lego soldiers.

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My kids are not remotely interested in “real world” lego.  They like the stuff that sparks more fantasy type imaginative play, such as super heroes, ninjas and ‘Lord of the Rings’.  Lego City, therefore, is not their bag.  Regardless, however, we headed into the Lego City section.  The queues were ridiculous by that stage in the day except for an emergency vehicle experience.  Mr Pict were one team out of three.  They were loaded into a police van and they had to pump a lever – like an old time railroad handcar – to make it move.  Once they got to one end of the area, they had to jump out, pump water from a fire hydrant and aim the hose that was blasting with water at a target in a window area.  Once that target had collapsed from the force of the water they had to jump back in the van and pump it back to the start line.  They were all exhausted at the end of it and it was fun for them to have to work as a team.

My favourite thing about Legoland is not a ride at all or even an event.  It is just an area.  What I love is the whole area dedicated to just lego models of different parts of the world, different cities and landmarks.  I love the creativity, the imagination and the skill involved. It’s inspirational.  The Legoland back in Britain showcased models of different European countries.  Instead the one in Florida had models of representing bits of Florida and a few other US cities – Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC – all of which I have visited.The casinos of Las Vegas are weird and wacky enough without being in lego version.  The boys loved the volcano, the Venice casino and the little wedding ceremony.  Mr Pict and I have a half-baked plan to renew our wedding vows in a tacky Vegas ceremony, maybe even officiated by an Elvis, followed by a road trip second honeymoon (with the kids) along Route 66.  Maybe we should have a lego themed renewal.  The boys loved seeing all of the bits of lego New York because it was an American city they had been to and because New York is the setting for some of their lego video games.  Favourite bits were Times Square, the skyscrapers and Rockefeller Plaza and Grand Central Terminal.  We loved all the little people bustling about in the train station, especially the people going up the escalator.  I had just finished reading the kids a book set during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 so they enjoyed seeing that city, including the sea lions at the bay.  Ohttps://flic.kr/p/qBHh1Tf course, mini Washington DC was where all the mini monuments were.  As we were just in actual Washington DC in April, the boys had fun recognising the sites they had visited, the Lincoln Memorial and White House in particular.

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As Star Wars nerds, we were delighted to find that there was a whole model section devoted to scenes from Star Wars movies.  In Britain, the Star Wars sections had all been indoors but in Florida they were out in the open.  That made it easier for the detail to be observed, since they were not in darkened rooms, and the models could also be set in beside the foliage where appropriate, as with the Endor models and the Kashyyyk battle.  Being a fan of the classic Star Wars movies myself, I liked the scene of the rebel base on Hoth and the wampa cave and the scenes set on Tatooine, especially all the detail in the cantina scene.  The boys loved seeing the Millennium Falcon taking off from Mos Eisley and the full size lego models of Darth Maul, Darth Vader and R2D2.

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Sadly that was as many rides as we could go on.  The queues for the rides we had not been on were ridiculously long and – after so many days of theme parks – we were all up to our eyeballs with queuing and had little tolerance left for it.  It was not helped by the fact that the park was incomplete and construction work meant that some paths were dead ends and there were bottlenecks.  Therefore, the last thing we did during our daytime excursion of Legoland was also a throwback to the park’s Cypress Gardens era.  The Island in the Sky ride was essentially a rotating UFO on a metal stick.  We were seated in the UFO and it then slowly ascended 150 feet in the air and rotated 360 degrees affording us great views over the park.  I am not great with heights but somehow I managed it.

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After leaving to get dinner off site, we returned to Legoland.  It was completely dark by this point and the park had been lit up with festive lights everywhere.  We walked to the mini America area to get as clear a view of the fireworks as possible.  We were each handed a pair of glasses, just like the old fashioned 3D ones, to put on.  As soon as I did so, I noticed that the bulb of the street lights had turned into lego bricks.  Woah!  And then my 9 year old noticed that the focus light on my camera had also turned into a tiny lego brick.  Woah!  Every point of light in the park was a lego brick.  Incredible!  There was something built into the lenses that was turning all of the light into lego.  Then the fireworks started.  Ah-May-Zing!  It was inherently a pretty awesome fireworks display in any case but with every spark and burst turned into a shower of vivid, colourful, bright lego brick it was extra special.  My kids exclaimed, bubbled and brimmed with excitement throughout the display.  Afterwards they kept the glasses on so that they could see all of the fairy lights and decorations turned into lego bricks too.  Then on the car journey back to the villa, they oohed and aahed as each car headlight and taillight, each glowing window, each neon sign was also transformed into a lego brick.  Way beyond cool and a fabulous way to end our family fun in Florida.

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Florida Wildlife Quest

Mr Pict and I do not often get any entirely child-free couple time.  In fact, it is as rare as hen’s teeth that we get some alone time.  Having grandparents on the premises to provide babysitting was, therefore, an opportunity so when they offered to look after the kids so we could spend a day together we were very grateful.  It is not that we do not love being with our kids, of course, just that it is equally important to remember that we were a couple before we were parents.

The kids had shown more interest in spending a day in the swimming pool than go exploring nature so we decided to spend the day searching for wildlife.  We drove out to Merritt Island wildlife reserve, which is near Cape Canaveral, as we felt that gave us the best opportunity to see manatees in December.

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Our first wildlife encounter was with a vulture.  I actually see vultures fairly frequently in Pennsylvania as they like to munch on roadkill.  The first time I saw one was quite arresting.  Used to seeing carrion crows muzzling into splattered beasts, it was strange to drive past something so large doing just the same thing.  A few months ago, I even had to drive around one vulture who was in the middle of the road, refusing to budge from the squirrel remains that were forming his breakfast.  The vulture I spotted on our wildlife excursion was similarly undeterred by my presence.  I was able to get quite close to him before he flew off into a nearby tree.  My eyes following him upwards, I noticed that there were a lot of vultures circling low in the sky.  I hoped it was not us that they had their eyes on.

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Taking a stroll out along the shoreline, we spotted something large and dark emerge briefly from the water at some distance from us.  Could it possibly be?  We stopped and stared and watched as the same shapes emerged, submerged and re-emerged several times.  Rounded head.  Large, flattened tail.  Flippers.  Yes!  It was!  It was my first wild manatee.  I watched, delighted, as it continued to frolic in the water.  It was frustrating not being able to get close enough to see any of the detail of this wonderful, bizarre creature but it was still completely magical to encounter, even at a distance, this rare creature.

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We then headed to Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven mile long, one way drive through marsh land.  We duly paid the $5 into the honesty box, picked up a guide leaflet and set off on the winding road in a slow moving wagon train of at least a dozen other cars.  The cars would the piggy back as each group of people decided to pull over to get a closer look at something.  A good indication of whether there was something especially interesting to see was either if there were a whole herd of cars parked up together or if someone suddenly swerved to the side to pull over.

The whole place was a haven for birds.  There were loads of them to see wherever I looked.  There were several varieties of heron, piercing their beaks into the water’s placid surface to spear an unsuspecting fish; there were crisply white egrets, their feathers fluttering like dancing snowflakes in the breeze; there were hefty wood storks, stalking through the water on their long legs, their heads bald and scaly, their bills curving like a cutlass; pink-hued roseate spoonbills waded in lines, one after the other, their bills comically bizarre; there were coots all over the place, darting between the other birds, hither and thither, and then gathering together as one massive swarm.

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Excitingly, we also saw a couple of alligators.  Both were submerged in the water, either moping around, listless, feeling the ennui of being an apex predator, or else lurking around awaiting an ambush opportunity.  It made them difficult to photograph but it was fantastic to be able to see them so close and witness their behaviour, especially as one slowly slipped beneath the surface, disappearing into the murk, leaving not a ripple behind him to betray his presence.

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We had undertaken some research to find out where we were most likely to see a wild manatee in December.  We, therefore, headed to the Haulover Canal on the Indian River.  According to a sign, this is actually the site of a centuries’ old crossing on a narrow point of the river.  Native Americans and Spanish settlers would haul their canoes and boats over the strip of land and across the water, hence the name “haulover”.  It was dug out, by slave labour, and turned into a canal in the 1850s.The fact that the site has a designated manatee observation deck was a very promising start and, sure enough, no sooner had I set foot on the deck and looked down at the shallow water below than I spotted a large manatee.  Practically bounding and leaping, I followed the manatee along the shoreline until I was almost in reaching distance.  I was so close I could see the thick, wrinkly looking texture of its skin, the barnacles encrusting it, and the spade like tail casting flukes on the river’s surface each time it briefly submerged.  I was over the moon.  Completely exhilarated.  The manatee stuck close to the shoreline where I had stationed myself for a good few minutes before swimming out beyond the tree line and beyond anyone’s line of sight.  Perfect timing.  Had I arrived at the deck a few minutes later, I would have missed out on this incredible encounter.  Mission well and truly accomplished.

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It was mid-afternoon at this point and neither Mr Pict nor I had eaten so we headed into Titusville to see what our dining options were.  In the end we plumped for Sonny’s Pit BBQ, a regional chain.  We started with bowls of fried okra and corn nuggets.  I absolutely adore fried okra and this was the best I had ever had.  It was fresh and crisp and completely delicious.  I had never had corn nuggets before.  They were essentially balls of creamed corn, breaded and fried so that they had crisp exteriors and melting, molten interiors.  Mr Pict was in carnivore heaven so he ordered a sampler plate so he could have a taste of everything.  All the major food groups were represented: cow, pig and chicken.  He pronounced everything to be entirely delectable.  I had the lunch sized portion of pulled chicken with cornbread, coleslaw and fries.  It too was very tasty and succulent.  I doused mine in sweet hot barbecue sauce which made it sing.  Our one criticism of the food was that it could have been served hotter as we both found our food to be lukewarm.

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That ended our child free day of wildlife spotting.  We headed back to the villa to find that fire ants had invaded our en suite bathroom.  I was bitten on the legs by the little blighters.  That was absolutely a wildlife encounter I could have done without.

Universal Islands of Adventure

Universal Studios had seemed busy.  It was positively a ghost town compared to our visit to Universal Islands of Adventure.  Despite arriving just prior to park opening time, the queue to even get through security checks was bulging and bad-tempered.  There were just swarms of people everywhere, like termites spilling out of a nest.

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We hightailed it to the Harry Potter area which contains a replica of Hogsmeade village and Hogwarts Castle.  As we walked towards the line, the sign proclaiming a 45 minute wait morphed into 90 minutes and as we turned the corner it ticked over to 120 minutes.  We contemplated not doing the ride at all, given the extraordinary length of the queues, but as Potterphiles it seemed ridiculous to come to Universal Islands of Adventure and not visit Hogwarts.  The nature of the ride itself, however, put off several members of the group so while the grandparents headed to Dr Seuss land with the other boys, Mr Pict, our oldest son and I resigned ourselves to a lot of queueing.  The high quality of the Gringott’s Bank ride led us to expect that the queue would at least be worth waiting in.  It was, without a doubt, the longest line I have ever seen.  It contained lots of switchbacks and detours out of the Wizarding World and into adjacent areas of the park yet still we had to be snaked around the back of Hogwarts, which turned out to be a blank façade, somewhat ruining the magic.  A lot of staff were being deployed just to manage and control the lines and they had all been to the same boot camp where they were taught to bark passive-aggressive orders in cheerful, musical tones.  For the most part, however, at least the queue was interesting.  We listened to music from the movies, shuffled through the herbology greenhouse and moved through the castle – past statues of wizards, past corridors of moving paintings, through Dumbeldore’s office.  Finally we were at the front of the line.  We were loaded into seats that were suspended from the ceiling so that we could feel as if we were flying.  We were flung around and jolted here and there.  My legs were flapping around like a rag doll.  A mixture of technical effects were used but they created attacking dragons and dementors to escape.  The challenging part for me was the quidditch match.  The movement of the chairs combined with the fast pace of the visual imagery and the fact it was a simulator made me feel really very nauseous.  I had to squint my eyes to be out of focus just to be able to cope.  It was an absolutely brilliant ride (though not as good as Gringott’s Bank) but it was definitely at the boundaries of what I could cope with and tolerate.

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We promised ourselves that we would return to the Hogsmeade area at some point as a group of eight.  Some of the boys wanted to do the Hippogriff rollercoaster and we all wanted to see the detail of the buildings.  It was not to be, however.  After we left the area, the visitor numbers were such that they had to create a queue (which was an hour long when I asked) just to obtain a ticket containing an entry time for getting into Hogsmeade.  Once inside, the ticketed visitor still had to queue up for any of the rides.

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We chose not to fritter away such extraordinary lengths of time on one area of the theme park though we were disappointed at having to make that choice.The whole park was actually just far too busy.  We learned that it was at 90% capacity and we felt the pressure of every one of those 45,000 people every time we tried to move.  The pathways through the park were badly designed as we encountered several bottlenecks.  There were also points where we got caught up in a current of moving people and it was difficult to find a way out of that surge and towards where we wanted to be.  It was 82* Fahrenheit too which added to the sense of harassment.  I dislike physical contact; I loathe physical contact with complete strangers; physical contact with a heaving mass of sweaty strangers made me wig out.  It was all just too much, far too much.  I would have come away from Universal Islands of Adventure with a far more positive feeling had there been fewer people.  As it was, my experience of the place was tainted by the feeling of just being constantly harassed.

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For the 90 minutes that we were trapped in a Hogwarts queue, the other kids and their grandparents had been exploring Dr Seuss Landing with them, they were eager to show us the sights.  Arlo’s favourite ride had been the Sneetches sky train so we did that first.  It was cute.  We travelled on an overhead monorail past characters from various familiar Dr Seuss stories while a voice in our mini train carriages narrated a rhyming story that was an amalgamation of various stories.  Then Mr Pict and the kids went on the One Fish Two Fish air carousel, another one of those rides whereby the pods – this time shaped like fish – rotate while also being able to move up and down.  Every so often, they would be squirted by water as they moved past some fish.

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Since they were already wet, Mr Pict and the boys decided to go on a water ride.  We, therefore, headed over to the comic book area (which did not seem to fit into the rest of the park) to the Popeye barrel ride.  Popeye is one of those characters who seems to have disappeared since my own childhood, when he was already a vintage has-been, so the fact his heavy jawed mug and bulging biceps were using to sell a ride in a state-of-the-art theme park struck me as odd.  At the last moment, our 9 year old decided not to go on the ride.  Wise decision.  We watched as Mr Pict and the boys were loaded into a barrel boat – a process that took ages because the staff were letting boats set off mostly empty, lengthening an already long queue.  From our vantage point on a bridge path, we could also see their boat being released and tipping over the edge of a weir.  That, however, was as much as we could see of their aquatic journey because unfortunately there was no more pedestrian access to the route they took.  We sat at the ride’s exit, waiting for them to emerge.  When they did appear, they looked like a group of swamp creatures.  All four of them were entirely sodden, their hair dripping, their clothes sticking to their bodies, their shoes creating puddles with every step taken.  Luckily for them, the same dry heat that was making the crowds even more unbearable also dried them out quickly.

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Next up was a live action show based on the stories of Sinbad.  The shade of the auditorium provided welcome respite from the sun and some order and calm away from the chaos of the theme park’s walk ways.  There was a large and elaborate set which operated at different heights and levels, there was fire and fireworks, an evil sorceress and her monstrous cronies, a princess who needed rescued only so she could then kick butt on her own behalf, well-practiced choreography, swinging on ropes, jumping and a comical sidekick.  The sound mix was a bit ropey at points, making it very hard to follow the dialogue, but it was all about the action so that did not matter so much.  It was slick and fun.  The kids absolutely loved it.

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During our long stint at Hogwarts, the others had gone on the Poseidon’s Fury ride.  Our 9 year old was desperate to return to the ride and show it to Mr Pict, his oldest brother and me.  Of course, the park had been much emptier first thing in the morning (and all of the crowds were, of course, packed into Hogsmeade with us) so they had had no queues, had been able to walk straight into the attraction without any waiting, hassle or faffing.  This time the queue was 50 minutes long.  Incredibly that was one of the shortest line times in the park at that juncture.  My in-laws went off to find a shady spot to rest in and the rest of us decided to suck up the wait, joined the end of the line and proceeded to get baked in the blazing heat of the afternoon sun.  It was a long and not very entertaining 50 minutes.  The first thrill of the ride was just the elation of entering the cool, dark interior of the building.

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The premise of the ride was that we were in Poseidon’s Temple, being given a tour by the assistant of a famed archaeologist.  However, the excavation had awakened some sort of demon who could only be defeated by Poseidon’s trident which we, therefore, had to locate.  We moved from room to room in order to be dazzled by different special effects.  Images of Poseidon and the demon were projected onto falling water, there were quality pyrotechnics, explosions and fire, but best of all was when we had to walk through a tunnel that was a vortex of water.  Water swirling around us so quickly that it formed a tunnel we could pass through without getting anything more than the occasional bit of light spray.  What did not work so well was the viewing.  The stands were not raked enough so that those of us standing towards the back of the room could not see past the people in front of us well enough and were missing out on some of the show.  Even lifting the smaller of our kids, it was very difficult for them to see what was going on.  That was frustrating.  However, that water tunnel was incredible and really made the ride, made it all worthwhile.

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In keeping with the season, there was a live performance of The Grinch running a few times each day.  Intent on some festive fun, we got in line for Merry Grinchmas.  Thankfully the line was not too long and we were all shuffled into and seated down in the theatre.  The show was based on the movie version of Dr Seuss’ classic tale rather than the original text.  Some of the singing voices were better than others but the performance was engaging and enjoyable, the prosthetics and costumes were spot on and the whole thing possessed festive charm, including fake snow that fell on the audience at the end of the show.

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At that point there was not a single ride in the park that had a wait time lower than an hour and the most popular were over two hours long.  Even in Seuss Landing, where surely the only interested people were small kids, the queues were extensive.  My kids were smart enough to decide not to queue for an hour for a ride that only lasted a couple of minutes.  Good choice.  We decided, therefore, to cut our losses with Universal Islands of Adventure, escape the maddening crowds and head back to the villa.

Gators and the Gulf

Having been to three theme parks, we decided it was high time that we took the boys out to see something of the real Florida.  We, therefore, packed up our cars and drove south to Sarasota in order to visit Myakka River State Park, a wildlife preserve of marshes and lakes.

Our quest for the day was to see wild alligators.  The boys have never seen an alligator in the wild before and I had only seen one once (at the Kennedy Space Centre in 1998) so we were eager to have some kind of ‘gator encounter.  We were not disappointed.  We parked the car up beneath trees festooned in Spanish moss and walked across to a bridge over a stream and there we saw a whole congregation of alligators (that is the collective noun – I looked it up) lazing on the river bank.  These were not dinky or juvenile alligators either; these were full-sized, muscular, powerful beasts.  They paid no attention to the groups of people standing gawping at them.  They didn’t even move a muscle when a pair of folks in a kayak moved past them.  I was wanting to keep pressing on through the park in the hopes of having a closer encounter with an alligator but it was not to be because my children decided to bicker between each other and rebel.

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Gators

(The close up photo of the gators was taken by my 7 year old and is shared with his permission)

Before we left the park, however, we took a stroll out along a wooden boardwalk that projected into the marshes and there we saw all sorts of bird life: wood storks, varieties of heron, egrets, ibis, and roseate spoonbills.  There were lots of bird watchers so apparently the park was a great location for seeing birds.  It would have been great to keep exploring the park because there was clearly a diverse ecosystem and lots of interesting wildlife to observe.  There was no point, however, in dragging non-compliant children any further since their whines and yelps would only scare things away.

Mission partly accomplished but mostly abandoned, we decided to take the boys to experience the Gulf Coast.  It was actually quite hard to find a stretch of beach that had public access but we finally found one at Long Boat Key.  As much as I loathe sand, I have to concede that the beach had nice sand.  There was no section of rocky stones and shells at the shoreline to step on and over either, just fine, smooth sand from grass line to sea.  The boys had a whale of a time running and splashing in the water, wading and swimming.  Inspired by a nearby man who was sculpting the sand, they decided to build a sand castle with moats and defences.

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Energy burned off, it was time to consume some energy.  My husband and his parents wanted to seek out a restaurant named Duff’s because it was the first buffet they had ever eaten in in America.  We headed to one in a town named Bradenton.  I know absolutely nothing about the town but it appears to be on its uppers.  The restaurant turned out to be adjacent to a food bank and opposite the worst trailer park I have ever seen.  The whole area just screamed depression.  The restaurant, however, was rather good.  The food was all traditional southern cooking, which I am rather partial too.  I must have eaten the equivalent of a plate full of just fried green tomatoes.  There were also several sides containing okra as a chief ingredient.  Lots of seasoned fish and lots of chicken dishes.  It was all delicious.  It transpired, however, that the nostalgia of Mr Pict and his parents was thwarted.  This Duff’s, it turned out, had nothing to do with the Duff’s of the 1970s and ‘80s.  That Duff’s chain had gone out of business decades before.  Never mind.  I still loved those green tomatoes.

Boxing Day at Epcot

Mr Pict has this nostalgic thing for Epcot.  Our second day at Disney could have been spent at any of the parks but, between his halcyon hued memories of trips past and his rose-tinted persuasion of the kids, it was clear we were going to be spending our second and last Disney day at Epcot.  It is actually the only Disney Florida park I had been to before this trip as we had visited sixteen years before, almost to the day.  I did not have such fond memories of it.  Actually I have very few memories of it at all.  What I did remember was that it seemed dull and dated.  We set off on our visit wondering which one of us would be proved correct.

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Because Mr Pict is into astronomy and space exploration, he determined that our first port of call would be Mission Space.  The line was divided into intense and less intense versions of the ride.  We all opted for the less intense option.  They needed to have a line for weenies because the easy version was still too much for me.  First of all there was the claustrophobia.  The simulators contained four of us and once the doors were closed the screens and controls moved towards and over us so that I felt completely trapped.  The ride is themed around astronaut training so we were given a spiel about each of us undertaking a different role in the mission and having to hit certain buttons at the right time.  Then we had lift off.  There was pressure and vibration, jolting movement, waves of nausea, closed eyes.  There was something about an asteroid field and landing on Mars but quite honestly I was paying very little attention to anything other than stopping myself from vomiting.  I was very glad when it ended.  Mr Pict and our oldest son enjoyed it so much, however, that they decided to go off and do the intense version of the ride.  I later read that two people had died doing the intense ride.  The centrifugal force was apparently incredibly powerful.  They both emerged from the ride looking terribly pale, overcome with surges of nausea that lasted for hours and feeling very wobbly.

Clearly we all needed to do something much more sedate.  Universe of Energy it was.  This was a bizarre ride, essentially an extended educational film starring Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy delivering information about fossil fuels – all sponsored by an oil company, of course – coupled with animatronic dinosaurs.  Don’t bother trying to analyse that.  It really makes no sense.  The dinosaurs, which I think are prehistoric enough to have been created in the 1980s, have held up pretty well for show in dark rooms.  The whole primeval swamp element was engaging in a way that the film skits were not.  The best thing about the ride, however, was that we got to sit down for its entire duration with the rows of seats moving between theatres.  After the boking movement of Mission Space, being seated for a length of time was very welcome indeed.

Journey into your Imagination was an exploration of the connection between the senses, imagination and invention.  It was narrated by a live action Eric Idle portraying some sort of inventor and a squeaky-voiced animated dragon named Figment.  The wagons we were sitting in moved between rooms that each explored a different sense with Figment gradually unleashing increasing levels of chaos all culminating in him singing a song about “one little spark”.  The message is clear: the best thing is to set your imagination free.  We were then disgorged into a room where the kids could play with different interactive experiments, things like light and sound.  Because they are screen junkies, the boys were all quite taken with consoles where they could construct an animated dragon of their own and name it.  The hypocritical thing, however, was that they were given a very narrow set of parameters to choose from.  Their imaginations might be capable of coming up with any number of colour combinations for their dragons but they had to choose from just the same six colours every time.  Their creativity was being limited.  So much for setting your imagination free.

Having never been a Michael Jackson fan, the existence of the 3D movie ‘Captain Eo’ had entirely passed me by.  Partly because our 7 year old is a Michael Jackson fan, partly because the timing made sense and partly out of curiosity, we entered the theatre to find out what it was all about.  We were given our 3D spectacles and settled into our theatre seats before being told that we were about to view a vintage classic.  I got the same feeling from that phrasing as I do from reading real estate listings.  Oh dear.  We were then told we were going to be taken back to 1986.  An even bigger Oh dear.  On the upside, Jackson was no slouch when it came to performance and production values, Angelica Huston was the antagonist and it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  There was potential for it not to be dire.  But it was.  No words are adequately going to describe the movie or convey how bizarre it was.  It was a completely bonkers confection of choreography, camp and kitsch.  It was essentially an extended music video starring Michael Jackson and some ropey special effects.  Along with his alien and robot crew mates, Jackson undertakes a mission to deliver a gift to Angelica Huston’s alien queen.  Said gift turns out to be a compliment and a song and dance routine in which some members of the crew turn into musical instruments and the alien queen’s underlings turn into leotard clad dancers.  It certainly was an experience, there was no denying that.

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After a break to eat our packed lunches and watch mesmerising fountains of jumping water, we went to see Circle of Life: An Animated Fable, a short film presented by the winning duo of Timon and Pumbaa.  The best thing I can say about this experience was that we got to sit in comfortable seats.  The cockle-warming message of ‘The Lion King’ – that all living things and their habitats are interconnected and impact on each other – had been churned into a horribly unsubtle, incredibly didactic lecture about humans destroying the planet.  The message is one that I support but the medium of that message felt like being drilled by a dry but barking lecturer.  It was snoresome and the recycling of vintage footage which was interspersed with the animation made it reminiscent of those terrible 1970s educational films I was forced to watch at school to fill gaps in the lesson planning.

The dull, didactic drivel continued at Living with the Land.  This is billed as a ride but all that really means is that you queue for a good while (mercifully we used Fast Pass to avoid that) to then get contained in a small plastic boat that does nothing but get dragged along in a pool that looks like the CDC should take an interest in it.  It is not a ride at all; it is a slowly moving lesson on farming.  Supposedly it is about the history of cultivating the land from past to future but there was a lack of cohesive structure underpinning that.  There were a couple of vague dioramas showing farming, principally a Dustbowl era farm fallen from the pages of a Steinbeck novel, and then we were jolted without any discernible segue into contemporary, scientific models of agriculture such as hydroponics and aquaculture.  Essentially, therefore, it is a slow moving tour of a greenhouse laboratory.  The only excitement came from trying to identify the plants without reading the labels.  Seriously.  It was that dull.  I am all for promoting ecology and more efficient use of land and other natural resources but I would suggest that if one wants to get people to engage with and buy into such production processes it might be a good idea to keep them awake.

That was the essence of Epcot’s problem: the whole place was tired and wearisome.  It was entirely lacking in the magic and charm one expects of Disney.  However cloying, commercial and insipid the atmosphere of Disney can be, it’s loud and bright migraine-inducing world is far preferable from feeling trapped in a stuffy, dust-caked library of irrelevant textbooks.  The plus side of a day at Epcot was that fewer visitors meant shorter queues but for me at least that did not balance out the negatives.  The whole place badly needs an update.  A theme park founded on the idea of technology, the future, pioneering science and education needs to work hard at and invest in maintaining relevance.  That means keeping things fresh and continually modifying and updating.  While many of the rides may have been tinkered with a bit since their inception – audio guides rather than human drones, for instance – there was too much in the park that felt old and crusty.  It is hard to sell classic in a park that is about the future.

Another problem was that some of the new installations just smacked of desperation.  The middle of the park contained an Innoventions building.  The people it contained seemed to be mainly there for the purpose of obtaining Fast Pass tickets.  There were screens set up with video consoles where kids (and some adults) could play Disney themed video games.  That sucked in three of my kids.  There were also some interactive experiences directed at pre-schoolers.  Our 5 year old went off to do one about economics that involved carrying around a piggy bank and making decisions about spending, saving and investing.  He had fun and the idea of the game was a sound one but the play experience was at odds with the level of understanding required.  It was as if the game was directed at preschool age kids but the lesson to be gleaned could only be absorbed by an older child.  The whole section was incoherent and felt like mere filler.  As soon as I could drag the kids away from the Toy Story game, we left in pursuit of something more diverting.

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The Finding Nemo ride was sweet and probably a better fit for the Magic Kingdom than for Epcot.  Sitting in moving clam shells, we were taken through representations of different scenes of the movies.  My favourites were travelling through jellyfish, being surrounded by animated turtles and animated characters being projected into tanks filled with actual fish.  When we disembarked from our shells, we exited past a large tank that contained a dolphin.  We all watched the dolphin swimming around, completely mesmerised.  Then we walked past a shallow tank that contained a manatee.  I have a bit of a thing for manatees.  I think it is because they are so weird looking, so ugly they are cute, so peculiar.  I also enjoy the fact that there is a theory that sailors once mistook these tubby, grey, cows of the sea as mermaids.  The kids had never seen a manatee before so we spent quite a bit of time watching it moving around and chowing down on a few head of lettuce.

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One of the few things I did remember from my previous visit to Epcot was the World Showcase.  This is a series of areas dedicated to depicting individual countries.  Inspired, I believe, by the World’s Fair, it was probably initially sold as some sort of educational tool, teaching people about other countries and cultures, but really it seems to be a bit of a kooky promotional tool, publicity by tourist boards of the countries concerned.  It is completely bonkers, the stereotyping and broad brush representations of countries are twee, odd and amusing, but there is that meticulous attention to detail that is somehow winning despite all of that.

The first fake country we entered was Canada.  There was a version of Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac declaring it to be Canada.  It was certainly striking.  We actually went in to see Canada’s show, a 360 film.  It was presented by Martin Short, not exactly an A list ambassador for his nation, and was a series of shots of Canadian landscapes, cityscapes, animals and Mounties.  It was effective and well done but was a transparent advert for visiting Canada.  It worked though.  I definitely came out of that movie thinking that we definitely needing to think about returning to Canada some time in the near future.

Next up was Britain.  Except it wasn’t Britain, it was just England.  If there was any nod to Scotland, Ireland or Wales then I must have blinked and missed it.  There was a folk trio performing on the fake street who sounded vaguely Scottish but that was it.  It was all very cutesy and crazy.  A Tudor castle stood cheek by jowl next to Georgian mansions and Victorian cottages.  There were red postboxes and red phoneboxes, the latter pretty much extinct in Britain, and that very British institution of the village pub.  We went into one of the shops which happened to be selling food.  The boys’ bellies were instantly homesick for the sweeties and chocolate on the shelves, all those tastes of home they have missed for 14 months.  The price tags, however, precluded any purchases being made.  I thought the $13 for a jar of mango chutney was ludicrous enough but then Mr Pict spotted a jar of clotted cream for a mere $16.  Clotted cream is the ambrosia of the gods.  Although I am lactose intolerant, I am more than prepared to suffer for the sake of consuming clotted cream.  What I was not prepared to do, however, was find the black market area of Fake Britain in order to hawk my left kidney to pay for a jar of clotted cream.

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France was, of course, all about the Eiffel Tower, café culture and crepes; Morocco was all intricately decorated tiles and Moorish arches; Italy was ponts, piazzas and pizzas – though wandering through it enabled the boys to enjoy an ice cream; Germany was all timberframe houses, beer and pretzels; China was architecture, including gates, and traditional music; Japan was centred around an imposing pagoda; Norway was all about the Vikings and ‘Frozen’; And Mexico was Aztec pyramids and mariachi music.  The one thing that united all of these disparate country sections was extortionate food.  Each section had at least one dedicated eatery and looking at the price tags on the menus made me even more grateful we had brought packed lunches.

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Our last event of the day was to Spaceship Earth, housed inside Epcot’s iconic geodesic sphere.  Mr Pict was really looking forward to that ride since he had such fond memories of it.  Back when I had visited Epcot in 1998 it had certainly seen better days.  If memory serves – and really it made little impression on me – it was a moth-bitten collection of creepy mannequins and brown and orange polyester.  It was an archaic vision of the future imagined by someone who could not get their brain to think beyond the twentieth century.  It was so ropey it could have been based on some production notes from ‘Lost in Space’.  I am glad to report that it had been given a makeover and had been much improved since my last visit.

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Two by two, we were seated in moving chairs which ascended through the sphere in spirals.  This route took us past little vignettes telling the story of the history of human communication – Greek scholars, the Guttenberg press, early humans painting on cave walls, Egyptian scribes, a monk sleeping at his desk instead of working on a manuscript, a telephone exchange – and now comes right up to date with mention of contemporary communication technology such as the internet.  We then passed into a room filled with stars which was very attractive before beginning our descent out of the sphere.

At the very beginning of the ride, we had all had our photos taken by an overhead camera.  Reckoning it was just another one of those opportunities to try and flog a commemorative photo, I made a silly face at the camera, protruding tongue and jazz hand ears and all.  It turned out that the purpose of those photos was quite different.  Our portraits were built into an animation, played on the screen in front of us, about how future communication and information technology might develop.  So my oldest son and I watched a short film where my ridiculous facial expression was tacked on top of a simple cartoon body.  The pair of us laughed so hard throughout the animation that whatever information was being conveyed was utterly lost on us.

So, at the end of the day, neither Mr Pict nor I were correct in our assessment of Epcot.  He admitted that his nostalgia had papered over the cracks of the park.  It is not that it was shabby – it was all very clean and well-maintained – but it was very dated and dry.  The park’s focus on science and technology makes it imperative that it evolves in response to advances in those fields.  While this was happening, the makeovers were not being done at the pace required.  The whole place just seemed out of step and out of touch.  Furthermore, the more didactic rides just need to be scrapped.  Nobody visits a theme park to be lectured at.  It is also hard to swallow messages about ecology and environmental responsibility coming from a company that must suck up resources at a natural rate and which sells brightly coloured plastic at every opportunity.  On the other hand, Epcot was not quite as dreadful as I had remembered.  Although it made me feel like I wanted to spew like a volcano, the Mission Space ride was actually pretty effective in suggesting the challenges of training as an astronaut and Spaceship Earth was actually an excellent ride.  However, I think if Disney wants to maintain Epcot as a viable theme park in its collection, it really needs to invest some imagination and thought into how to make it engaging and relevant.